Monday, November 28, 2011

`Metre Is a Brain-Altering Drug'

“It was language I loved, not meaning. I liked poetry better when I wasn’t sure what it meant.”

One outgrows such thinking, usually by age sixteen, about the time we start feeling guilty for having fallen for the flummery of Dylan Thomas. The poet who wrote the lines above, P.K. Page, died last year at age ninety-six. She wrote them, in “Falling in Love with Poetry” (collected in The Filled Pen: Selected Non-fiction), in 2005. Some of us mature more slowly than others.

In the best, most memorable poems, sound and sense are inseparable. It’s not surprising that among the first poems to excite me as a boy were Poe’s “The Bells” and "Annabel Lee,” the usual well-oiled suspects. Today, I can’t read Poe on a bet, and for diametrically opposite reasons I can’t read Allen Ginsberg. At the start of her essay, Page suggests an explanation for our early, faulty infatuations:

“I fell in love with poetry before I knew what poetry was. I loved the rhythms and the rhymes.”

   Bad poetry can be very powerful and seductive, whether transparently bad like Poe’s or “skillfully obscure” like Hart Crane’s, in the words of Yvor Winters. Too much emphasis on sound results in nonsense; too much on sense, propaganda that might as well be prose. One reason we can’t fall in love with contemporary poetry is that most of it possesses too much sound and too little sense, or vice versa. Good poems dwell in a taut equilibrium. Formlessness invites self-indulgent senselessness. We need something to chafe against, in literature as in life. Free verse, in most hands, is slavery. Sonnets liberate. In another essay, “A Writer’s Life,” Page says:

   “I suspect that metre is a brain-altering drug – one we ignore at our peril. Just consider what we know, but take for granted: that iambic is the lub-dub of the heart, and iambic pentameter that lub-dub repeated five times – roughly the number of heartbeats to a breath. It is difficult for me to believe this is accidental.”

   You can dispute Page’s understanding of physiology but not her conclusion. Just read, at random, a poem by William Carlos Williams. With few exceptions, it’s thin, anemic, tuneless stuff, undistinguished even when transcribed as prose. In his introduction to the anthology English Renaissance Poetry (1963), John Williams, author of Stoner, writes of Ben Jonson's verse:

“It is, finally, a language that has passed from the starkness and bareness of outer reality through the dark, luxuriant jungle of the self, and has emerged from that journey entire and powerful.”


William A. Sigler said...

A fine defense of traditional verse, really. That ever-elusive “taut equilibrium” between sound and sense is so much more noticeable in the breach than in the observance. I’d quibble though that lovers of poetry ever really outgrow the need to not know what a poem means. After all, many people consider Shakespeare’s sonnets to be the finest verse in the English language, and find all kinds of personal meaning in them, but few trouble themselves with the poignancy of their actual meaning –the selfless act of a father to save his son by agreeing to become invisible, and in so doing save the sonnets themselves, linking life and art inextricably together. The sonnets are more profound for knowing the history, but not required to enjoy them. (The poetic “journey” of Ben Jonson is interesting in this context, given how it was depicted in the recent movie Anonymous where he was the central figure).

I agree that the pungent sounds of English are best softened by its unique swinging iamb rhythm, but, quibbling again, iambic pentameter has always been most interesting when it’s willfully violated (as in Keats’ When I have fears that I may cease to be), its artificiality used against it. Poe speaks of the art of defying conventions for artistic effect in his Philosophy of Composition, where he explains why "The Raven" is not in iambic pentameter.

As for sonnets, I love them, writing and reading them. I also love the world’s religions. That doesn’t mean I’m going to limit myself to their rules. For such rigors, truth be told, offer way too much freedom. As long as one follows the rules, one is ensured a spot in heaven, and the innumerable grey areas that make life worth living are neatly evaded. Modern life is too comfortable, to my mind, to not push the boundaries of what is understood.

Anonymous said...

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

zmkc said...

'the usual well-oiled suspects' is a lovely phrase. Wonderful piece - ditto the next, on roots.